Despite the ‘inspiration’ behind this film being so very English, The Jane Austen Book Club is a most American movie. And that’s not meant in a good way. It’s fashioned from the kind of scenarios and stereotypes that most European audiences will find anathema — sharing, caring, family and friends — but in a contrived way.
The film follows the lives of six friends (well they’re not all friends at the start, let’s get that straight) as they decide to read Jane Austen’s six novels in six months. The group is made up of a wise old hen, Kathy Baker’s Bernadette, a recently separated mother (Brenneman) and her gay daughter (Grace), Jocelyn (Bello) a beautiful loner, who’s banished all thoughts of relationships, Prudie, (Blunt) a high school teacher who lives and breathes Austen but whose jock of a husband is only into sports. And, finally, there’s Grigg, (Dancy) the token male and a sci-fi aficionado.
The difficulties facing director and screenwriter Robin Swicord are that the strengths of Austen’s writing — characterisation and wit — call for a deft touch in the screenplay department. Unfortunately, she’s so busy weaving her six characters around situations that ape the storylines of Austen’s novels that all the parallels she tries to draw come across as heavy-handed. You can see ‘that bit’ from Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey or Emma coming a mile off.
It’s not even that the cast don’t have the requisite acting chops — indeed Emily Blunt, as Prudie Drummond, creates a flawed and believable character — it’s more that the story doesn’t offer any genuine surprises. You know exactly what’s going to happen, when and to whom. In striving to be a feel-good, first-date kind of movie, The Jane Austen Book Club only succeeds in coming across as a shy, ham-fisted paramour — eager to please but in need of more substance.